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‘Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba’: Understanding the Appeal of the Blockbuster Movie




Mugen Ressha, the new film in the Kimetsu no Yaiba series, has been in cinemas in Japan for just a couple of weeks, but has thoroughly taken the country by storm.


In just 10 days since its release on October 16, the film has managed to gather ¥10 billion JPY ($95.7 million USD) in box office sales. 


The immense hit by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away, took 25 days ーmore than double the time — to achieve the same box office sales.


As of November 2, the Kimetsu no Yaiba box office revenue has surpassed ¥15.7 billion JPY, and is potentially on its way to becoming the highest-grossing animé film in history. 



What is the appeal of this animé series in the first place? JAPAN Forward interviewed Japanese pop culture expert and author Matthew Alt on October 25 to understand the possible factors driving the success of the film. We also wanted to learn more about his new book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World (Crown Publishing, 2020).



The Power of Timing



If the virus has brought fatigue due to constraints imposed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also brought the pure joy of rediscovering aspects of human interaction when limitations were lifted.


Japan had restricted the operation of cinemas since early spring 2020, and big releases were largely delayed, due to the pandemic.


This all changed on October 16 with the opening of Kimetsu no Yaiba: Mugen Ressha. It was the first large release in a while, and supply and demand seem to have met in the right spot.



Matthew Alt, who has been following the animé and manga industry for more than 20 years, commented on the favorable circumstances that led to the film being so successful: “When COVID-19 shut down a lot of animé productions, Kimetsu no Yaiba was already in the pipeline, so it’s basically come out with no competition.”


Cinemas were allowed to operate at full capacity only starting from mid-September. 


Alt explained that the film came at the right time also for consumers: “Japanese are just now feeling comfortable to come out and watch in movie theaters. So you have all these people with pent up desire to go to the movies, and now they feel they can finally go. Not only are they watching movies, they are repeatedly doing it.”


He was referring to the trend which was also true for Makoto Shinkai’s blockbuster Kimi no Na wa (Comix Wave Films, 2016), when fans went to cinemas repeatedly to see the film. Kimi no Na Wa recorded a total of ¥25 billion JPY ($238.5 million USD) in box office revenue, making it the second most watched animé film after Spirited Away (Studio Ghibli, 2001).




The Far Reaching Popularity of Demon Slayer



Regardless of the circumstances, the popularity of the film is something to behold. In Japan, even those with no interest in Kimetsu no Yaiba are aware of the fan craze. (RELATED READ: ‘Kimetsu no Yaiba Movie: Mugen Ressha’ Premieres in Japan Among Fan Craze)


The songs of the animé series and the film, sung by singer LiSA, are household tunes heard on the radio. Memorabilia goods are everywhere in supermarkets and convenience stores, and children on the train can be heard chattering about the animé, with some even wearing patterned masks associated with characters in the series.


The movie is based on the animé Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, which in turn originated from a manga (comic series) which ran in Shonen Jump magazine from 2016 to May 2020. The series, despite being only 22 volumes, is incredibly popular, selling over 100 million copies. It has already found its place in the top 10 manga of all time, following the footsteps of historic all-timers like One Piece, Naruto, and Dragonball.


The first animé series based on the manga was released in 2019 and has been incredibly popular. Since its release on Netflix and Amazon Prime, it has gained a solid following of fans abroad as well.



The story follows a young man called Tanjiro, the eldest brother of a family with four siblings. In a tragic turn of events, his family is killed by demons, and his sister, Nezuko, is turned into a demon. In an attempt to return her to human form, Tanjiro embarks on an adventure as a Demon Slayer, where, despite the toils and obstacles, he never loses faith in the goodness of people.


With silly jokes and brutal life lessons, the scenario line appeals to a variety of generations, and the popularity of the film has also spilled back into the manga as well.


Following the release of the film, the national broadcasting network NHK reported that retail stores saw a 350% increase in sales of the manga books of the series. 



Easy to Binge, Innovative Storyline?



One possible reason for the film’s popularity is that the animé and manga series are blissfully short. With just 22 manga books, and 25 animé episodes, the whole series can be viewed in a satisfyingly short period of time.



This is especially true for the animé series on Netflix streaming service, as Mr. Alt explained: “One of the key things of Demon Slayer, because it doesn’t have much history, you can binge watch the whole thing in like a week. I don’t even know where you would start with Dragon Ball or Naruto…. It can be daunting for a novice to get into it for the first time.”


The storyline is also interesting and unusual in its appeal to a wide audience. Printed in Shonen Jump, a manga magazine aimed at young boys, there has been growing speculation that the manga was written by a woman. Nobody knows for sure the gender of the author. All we know is that it’s a young person, about 31 years old, from Fukuoka Prefecture.


Alt speculated that the possibility the author might be female could be a key aspect in its popularity: “I think that is key to its cross-demographic appeal, because it’s so refreshingly bereft of the usual objectification of women, and scatological humor. The female characters are not tasukeyaku, meaning that they are not damsels in distress, the sister saves the main character half the time.”


When JAPAN Forward reviewed the movie on opening day, the huge number of female fans was noticeable, including those of high school age, which is considered unusual as far as Shonen animé go.


However, at the same time, the animé is not fluffy and cuddly, as some might imagine animation films to be. There are literal eviscerations when demons fight with humans, and the whole process of Tanjiro overcoming the heartache of losing his family is far from kind to watch.



Ryusuke Hikawa, a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo and an expert on animé, manga, and pop culture, spoke to The Sankei Shimbun, examining how the story has an appeal for exactly these reasons, because of the lessons it tries to teach.


“It’s the idea that when the fighting ends, you will overcome the hard things in life. Family love is portrayed in its purity, and with its characters the story teaches you ‘to become a respectable adult.’ You finish the film and think, ‘Let’s live better, let’s do better.’ It’s a piece of entertainment that for the first time in a while contains those kinds of lessons, which are more important than ever in today’s word,” he said. 


Professor Hikawa concluded with resolve, “This is the largest animé boom in 25 years, something we haven’t seen since the success of Neon Genesis Evangelion.”


Neon Genesis Evangelion, an animé series that goes back to the late 1990s, is considered a pillar in pop culture. It, too, will see a new film release with a remake in January 2021. 




Will It Also Break Abroad?



The animé is clearly popular in Japan, but the next question is whether it will break abroad.


Alt works with videogames, animé, and manga companies as a professional, translating them to appeal to foreign audiences.  


Although voicing the fear that violence in the animé might be a deterrent, Alt expressed the idea that the time of COVID-19 might provide an impetus for animé popularity abroad.


“[The restrictions of] COVID-19 are lifting, and what is happening? People are rushing even harder into fantasies, they are pivoting even harder in that direction. I think we will see the same thing happen in the States and Europe. Now that we have spent the last six months in fantasy-augmented realities, we’re not going to give that up,” he said.



Alt ended with a wry smile: “In a very real sense, we are all otaku (Japanese pop culture lovers) now.”


The film is set to release overseas in the coming months. Singapore, Mongolia, and Thailand are expected to see first releases within 2020. It is scheduled to be released in other countries — such as the United States, Canada, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Brunei, and Malaysia — in early 2021.



Author: Arielle Busetto


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